Saturday, January 05, 2013

"Lunacy" and the Bride of Frankenstein's Mum

The Dr has been much absorbed by the second most festive of her Christmas presents, Inconvenient People - Lunacy, Liberty and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise (2012), a history of mental health institutions with lots of horror stories worse than what happened to the first Mrs Rochester.

The book, says the Dr, debunks a lot of myths: men were much more likely to be incarcerated, and people were often locked up because they were an embarrassment to their families or because of disputes over money and inheritance. She was particularly pleased to show me this account following the introduction of the Lunacy Act 1890, by turns amazing and chilling:
"The first major case for the new law came in 1895. Edith Lanchester was the epitome of the New Woman of the Nineties: educated to degree level, she was a white-collar worker, a Socialist, a feminist, and determined to spend the rest of her life with her lover, James Sullivan, a railway clerk, in their Clapham Junction lodgings, without marrying. Her father, a wealthy architect, was having none of this, and on the evening of Friday 25 October 1895, he and two of Edith's brothers dragged her to a carriage, tied her with rope, and deposited her at The Priory, Roehampton. It was all very old-fashioned. 
An 'urgency order' had been written by Dr George Fielding Blandford [...] Blandford's rationale for authorising Lanchester's detention sounded decidedly quaint in 1895, and indeed there was some sniggering when his diagnosis became public: 'She says she is going to live with a man below her in station because marriage is immoral. This she argued in a wholly irrational manner.' Blandford stated that certification would have been unquestioned if Miss Lanchester had threatened suicide; as it was, she was threatening 'social suicide', which had justified his saving her from 'utter ruin... She had a monomania on the subject of marriage, and I believed that her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself.' 
Coincidentally - and fortunately - just two days later the Commissioners in Lunacy turned up at The Priory for a statutory visit; and as her father had not yet had time to obtain a magistrate's order and a second lunacy certificate, they immediately freed Edith. She was brought back to Clapham in triumph by her comrades from the Social Democratic Foundation, who helped to keep the tale of 'The Socialist Romance' in the newspapers for weeks. Fresh from his destruction of Oscar Wilde, the Marquess of Queensbury - atheist, divorcĂ© - wrote James Sullivan a supportive letter offering to pay any legal costs: 'I should like to shake you and your wife [sic] by the hand... You have a chance now of making a public protest, as everyone's attention is attracted. What is their idiotic [marriage] ceremony?' (Lanchester and Sullican never married and lived together until James's death in 1945; their daughter, Elsa, went on to be the Hollywood star of Bride of Frankenstein - a different kind of horror story.) 
The Lanchester case had shown that the new lunacy system seemed to be working, as the victim had been speedily freed. However, some things clearly hadn't changed. The Commissioners refused to take any action against Blandford or the Lanchester family. Her counsel also warned Edith not to go ahead with a private prosecution, as it would be an expensive failure to try to prove in court that malice - rather than a genuine mistake - lay behind the attempt to have her certified."
Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People - Lunacy, Liberty and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (2012), pp. 377-8.
(The Dr's most festive present was of course Paul Preston's The Spanish Holocaust).


Rob Stradling said...

"Oh Dear" to that last bit. Make sure she reads "Mein Kampf" immediately afterwards, just to retain ideological balance... ;-)

0tralala said...

I shall report back when she's read it.